As soon as you get on my floor, it’s about expectations. It’s about telling the story of where our children should be, what their potential is, where they come from and what they will accomplish. Everything about this school is intentional. I thought through it from the colors to the way the walls look.
Everything is intentional, because I want people to regard it as a place to be respected, because you have to respect these children. Not everyone can be invited. If you are invited, you can easily be told to leave, because it’s a precious place.
It’s also telling them that just because you’re from Brownsville, doesn’t mean you can’t have something significant, outstanding and great. When you walk here, it’s like walking on Park Avenue. It’s brilliant, it’s clean, it’s dope and it’s ours.
I’ve had people literally be offended that I’ve called [our children] scholars like, ”Do you know where they come from?”, “Have you seen their grades?”
I’m like, “I do. And what does that mean?”
Giving them a name, a positive affirmation forces them to think about what their responsibilities are. Learning does not stop at 2:20 p.m. when the bell rings. The name scholars means that you don’t stop learning. I’ve had my babies tell people, “I’m not a student; I’m a scholar. So get it right.”
When you are robbed of your history and you lack knowledge, people will sell you anything. Our worth comes from knowing who we are and what we come from. It doesn’t matter that [our scholars] are from Brownsville; to me, that’s what makes them brilliant. They have survived. They are resilient. Having been brought through nothing, they can create something. That’s been the story of our people.
It’s generational genocide when we fail to educate our children. I see it everyday.
I teach a course now entitled, ‘For The Culture,’ because they’re not learning their history, and unfortunately their parents haven’t learned it in schools. It’s part of my responsibility to do that. I try to embody that. The colors, black and purple, remind them that they’re descendants of royalty. With the artwork they do, we let them know that their creativity stems from their ancestors.
We walk across the Brooklyn Bridge just as a reminder of their past, their present and their future. We take them to historically black colleges as much as we take them to Harvard and Yale. We want them to see themselves on college campuses and understand why those type of schools had to be created in the first place.
What’s most important is them owning their power and having a school that reflects them. When they walk into these halls, they’ll see pictures of themselves, they’ll see pictures of great leaders. They do see the statistics, because I also want them to be reminded that there is society that is hell-bent on their demise. They want them to go to prison, and they are the largest number of individuals, in terms of race, within our prison system. I want them to always know that I opened a school to close a prison and that they are dope, dynamic and they can take over this world.
I don’t believe that when educators are here, they can waste our children’s time. If you are not here to teach them, you can’t stay. Not on my watch, not in my building. You have an obligation. You are getting the check, you better check on your children and make sure that they’re learning. We have to break the cycle and education does that, but it comes from people who care and are willing to do the work.
In the same breath, my firm belief is that we have to take care of ourselves. When we work within a system that isn’t designed to take care of people and is built on numbers, they don’t care how those numbers are moving as long as it’s done. You are then saying that human capital is no longer valuable.
Last year, I took my team to laser tag because, like kids, they need to have fun. They need to know that they matter and they need to just have a minute to breathe. Self-care and mental health are important. For the past nine years, twice a week, I give up my office so my staff can sit with a counselor.
When you think of the Black Panther Party, it really was ‘we have to take care of our own village.’ We have the capacity, but we just need to know how to organize and make sure it’s done. They showed us what we can do, at a time when society at large was keeping us oppressed and devaluing who we were. The reality is, all they did was read the Constitution and say ‘everything in here is telling us what we can do.’
So I did that with education. Education is liberating. Education is a birthright for our children. We are going to educate them on their history, we are going to educate them on what America is really about, and we’re going to educate them to know that they have the power to change their situation. So, that’s my job. I’m supposed to be the plug. I’m here to charge them up.